CW: body horror, death (suicide, murder, and other), unethical scientific/medical experiments.
I’ve had my eye on Rory Power’s Wilder Girls for months (how could I not, with that stunning cover?!) and finally found the perfect moment for this YA dystopian / horror in October. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I found the writing a little inconsistent.
In the novel, Raxter School for Girls is under quarantine. No one comes or goes from the island ever since the Tox started infecting the girls; over a year later, all of them have experienced the effects firsthand, students and teachers alike. Many have been killed by their bodies’ inability to adapt to sudden biological changes, including gills, morphing bone structure, scales replacing skin, and more. They’ve been told to stay put and wait for a cure, but when her friend goes missing, Hetty starts looking closer at what’s happening on Raxter Island, and finds some unsettling answers.
“We don’t get to choose what hurts us.”
First off, I must say I really like the premise and structure of this book. The mystery of the Tox and the quarantine kept me wondering and engaged from the first chapter to the last; it touches on current issues, it fits into a great setting (secluded island, defunct girls’ school), it allows for an exploration and celebration of female strength. The dual POVs were both essential and engaging. I’ve heard Wilder Girls likened to a feminist Lord of the Flies, which I don’t think is an entirely accurate comparison, nor does it do this story justice- it’s not a book about girls left alone going wild and reforming their own social order, but rather about a group of girls all stuck inside the same crisis and doing their best to help each other survive. There are still teachers present, enforcing structure and discipline into life at the school. As far-fetched as some of the details may seem, Powers does ground her central ideas by tying them to real-world problems- the main one addressed being climate change.
These days I prefer YA that tackles social issues or offers other food for thought relating to the real world that we live in. While I found just enough of this content behind the story to keep me satisfied, Wilder Girls might have made more of an impact if those themes had appeared earlier on; as is, the climate matter is tacked on at the end, leaving little room for the reader to consider the book’s ultimate horror: that a similar future might not be so far off. But I do expect more focus on a pacey plot and dramatic characters in YA than a lot of existential questions, so while perhaps I would have appreciated a bit more page time dedicated to climate change effects, I wasn’t disappointed with the amount provided.
While I enjoyed most of the plot (aside from a couple of convenient coincidences), I did struggle with a couple of other elements. The first was that I had some trouble understanding the characters’ choices- especially the teachers. They are presented as authority figures, but I had a hard time discerning whether the students trusted them, whether they should be trusted, and what the adults’ general attitude toward the students was during this crisis. Part of the problem is that the precarious dynamic between the adults and the teens is caught up in the main mystery of the Tox- character motivations are made clear when the story hits its climax, though I found them confusing up to that point. For one thing, there are only a couple of teachers left, and around 60 students, several of whom are only a couple of years below the age of the youngest teacher. When things start to look grim, I couldn’t understand why so many teens would continue to blindly follow adults they know don’t have all the answers. When food becomes scarce, for instance, what seventeen year-old wouldn’t question the people bringing in supplies and promising that it’s all temporary, that a cure is coming? What seventeen year-old doesn’t wonder whether they are being lied to when the promises don’t come true? And furthermore, Hetty is far from the first girl to see a friend go missing- why does it take over a year for any of these kids to investigate? Power does a fantastic job detailing relationships between the girls- friendships, rivalries, some f/f romance- but leaves a gaping hole in place of any explanation for the odd dynamic between those in authority on Raxter and those who follow.
“…she sounds like somebody’s mother. Patient, and controlled, because someone here has to be, and we’re children, but we stopped being kids a year and a half ago.”
In the end, I might not have even noticed the strange teacher/student interactions if I hadn’t already been having a strange experience with the writing style. I loved the physical and sensory details Power provides throughout this entire novel; every description of a body mutation brought on by the Tox, every description of the island’s natural elements overtaking attempts at civilization, of the living conditions at the school, and of the girls themselves, was vivid and effective for me. But when it came to explanations, I was somewhat lost. I don’t think Power’s logic is poor or lacking, just that it was very clear my brain runs on a different track than this author’s. Here’s an example:
“They teach us to shoot in what Welch calls a bladed stance, with the support shoulder to the target and the trigger shoulder to the back. She says it’s to make sure we hit right the first time, just in case the bullets stop coming on the boat and we have to make them count.”
I had to read this three times to understand that this stance was supposed to increase shooting accuracy, which means less wasted bullets and more saved ammunition. That may seem like only a slight rewording, but somehow the path between point A (the stance) and point B (the worry of having fewer supplies coming in) felt to me like a winding road I could barely follow. It didn’t make sense to me that a stance was going to “make sure we hit right the first time,” and the link, that accurate shooting means wasting fewer bullets, is implied, not spoken. Fine. That’s not an impossible leap, and obviously I did figure it out in the end. But somehow, the end of this paragraph felt like a total non sequitur to me. Little things like this were tripping me up constantly in this book, though I think most readers won’t have any difficulty. Something about Power’s wording, in this instance and in many others, just did not match with the way that I process language and logic. I don’t think I can explain myself any better than that, so I’ll stop there and let you make of it what you will. If you understood Power’s meaning immediately, you probably won’t have any confusion with the writing style. Unfortunately for me, I had to do a fair amount of careful rereading, which jarred me from the story every time.
All in all, I really did like this book (enough to vote for it in the Goodreads Choice Awards!) and don’t want to scare off potential readers with my middling rating or complaints about the writing style- which, through no fault of the author’s, I just didn’t jive with. This book isn’t going to be a good fit for every reader, but I think the deciding factors are likely to be the body horror and the age range, not Power’s wording. There is some detailed graphic imagery that’s worth being aware of before diving in, especially for younger readers, who are clearly the target audience here, but if that doesn’t bother you I highly recommend giving this one a try. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s wonderful.
(If you’re still not sure, I thought this one had a similar vibe to Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, if that helps!)
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I thought this was a solid debut, with unique ideas and promising style. I’ll probably check out Power’s 2020 novel when the time comes, to see whether the slight issues I had with the writing will be hammered out in a second novel, and to enjoy whatever unusual journey Power will take us on next!
Did you read any YA titles for October/Halloween this year? I’d love to hear what worked or didn’t!
The Literary Elephant